At first blush, the success of the No More Page 3 campaign does not look like a victory for free speech. After all, a thing that was being published, is no longer being published. The prudish censors have prevailed, right?
Look again. No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3 (or, for that matter, Page 4 or 5). MPs did not vote on a new Bill. No lawyers have filed a complaint, no judge has granted an injunction. The law is not involved. Freedom of speech means a choice over whether to publish, and Mr Murdoch has chosen not to publish pictures of topless women any more.
Sure, he has not made the choice for stand up reasons. I doubt he cares about whether women are objectified or that girls are sexualised. He just cares about revenue. Page 3 no longer pulls in the punters, and it’s hurting the ‘brand’. But who said that free speech had to be noble? Choosing to publish (or not) based on commercial reasons is as legitimate an exercise in freedom of expression as, say, the exposure of corruption.
The new editorial policy is a free speech victory for another reason: the campaigners won using their right to free speech. They wrote articles, launched petitions, took photographs of their own and posted thousands of social media messages. Freedom of expression allowed them to critique the speech of others. They were persuasive, and they achieved a victory by social and commercial means, not through the strong arm of the law.
It’s worth remembering that this is not the kind of victory many campaigners envisaged. In 1986, Clare Short introduced a Private Members Bill to
make illegal the display of pictures of naked or partially naked women in sexually provocative poses in newspapers.
I think such a law would have been quite antithetical to the concept of freedom of expression. Ironically, it was never properly debated. As Short describes in the introduction to her book on the issue, the government of the day subjected the Bill to procedural delays until the end of the parliamentary session – an anti-democratic, anti-free speech tactic. If the feminist arguments that persuaded people in 2015 had been properly heard in parliament in 1986… Perhaps societal views might have shifted sooner. We’ll never know.
Is the absence of naked breasts from Page 3 a victory for feminism, though? I worry that it is not. The topless models have been replaced by… Pictures of women in lingerie and bikinis. The objectification and trivialisation of women remains on Page 3. Those of us who think that such images promote sexism and undermine society need to keep on speaking out. Free speech means the debate never ends.